8. The Magician (Ingmar Bergman, 1958)
Set in the middle of 19th century Europe, Bergman’s clever tale tells the story of a band of traveling performers in “Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater” who put on shows about supernatural events and other scientifically based phenomena.
Because of the controversial content their show, when they travel into one town, the town’s leaders are skeptical and demand a private performance to determine if the show is factual and won’t hurt the town’s public. The lead magician Albert Vogler, played by Bergman regular Max von Sydow, then must think of a way of hoodwinking the town council, as well as dealing with issues inside of the group.
While not the most well known of all of Bergman’s films, his directing is as adept as ever and von Sydow’s performance is also superb. The most intriguing aspect of this film, however, (at least regarding the subject of this list) is the way it explores the treatment of magic in the 19th century public’s mind. While in the big cities magic shows may have been all the rage, in the small villages shown in this film, people were far more worried about the effects of the supposed witchcraft.
7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004)
Number three in the series of eight movies about the young wizard Harry Potter from J.K.Rowling’s bestselling books, this inspired and thrilling entry stands above the other films.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as the titular wizard who, with his best friends Ron and Hermione, has to deal with the many troubles that the year brings, including the escape of his murderer godfather, the execution of a pet and much more. The film features many stupendous instances of magic including transformation, time travel, divination and lots of incredible creatures.
Part of the reason this particular film stands out among the rest is due to the change in director. The first two films were made by Chris Columbus who captured the magical atmosphere well but lacked the artistic vision that the new director, Alfonso Cuaron, could bring to the wizarding universe. MIxing thrilling plot with beautiful and quirky scenes, Cuaron is able to create an enchanting atmosphere where he brings out enough darkness necessary for the plot, while still keeping it a family film.
6. The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan, 1940)
This dazzling Technicolor fantasy film, based on the stories of the Arabian Nights and the earlier Douglas Fairbanks film, is one of the most visually stunning films of the 1940s. The plot follows a prince who is double crossed by his vizier Jaffar and is thrown in jail.
There he meets a thief named Abu who breaks him out and the prince flees to Basra where he meets a beautiful princess. Jaffar has also gone to Basra, however, also in pursuit of the princess and uses his magic to seduce her. Luckily, the thief finds a genie in a bottle who can fight back against Jaffar with his its own magic.
The Thief of Bagdad Influenced many films about the Arabian Nights, most notably Disney’s Aladdin whose plot is almost completely the same, except that it combines the thief and prince characters ands adds songs. The film was also extremely influential in the field of special effects which combines innovative tech niques with Michael Powell’s trademark breathtaking visuals, resulting in one of the most sensational depictions of magic ever caught on film.
5. The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)
This charming animated film from Sylvain Chomet, who also made The Triplets of Belleville, is based on a never-filmed script from French comedy legend Jacques Tati.
The plot follows an old magician in 1950’s Paris who has faded from popularity due to the changing times. He picks up a gig following a rock band’s act, traveling across Europe, and eventually meets a young girl who really believes that he is magic. She follows him around to his various shows, creating a strong father-daughter relationship to help both of the find themselves.
As the plot suggests, the film is notably less comic than the handful of films that Tati actually got around to making. That is due to the fact that Tati wrote the film as a tribute to his daughter to whom he felt he neglected when he was busy filmmaking. The particular daughter, however, has been up to some debate with some claiming it was his eldest while others, including Tati’s grandson, say that it was his illegitimate daughter.
4. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal fantasy novels, this sprawling series is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful trilogy of films ever. The vast epic tracks the journey of a group of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards and men, who are trekking to Mount Doom in order to destroy the all powerful ring of Middle Earth, where the films are set. They are met with much resistance, however, from the evil orcs and various other creatures led by the wizard Saruman.
The films feature an enormous and talented ensemble cast, including Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett and so many more.
Although the magic is not the main focus of the plot, the presence of powerful wizards is integral to many events of the journey. The wizards may be few in the large collection of characters but they are certainly the most powerful, leading the two sides into battle and possessing vast amounts of wisdom.
The magic captured in this film is also the most spectacular representation of English style folklore and wizards, even if the mythology in the film was all made up by Tolkien. Notable for many other aspects as well, including special effects and story, The Lord of the Rings is an unmissable cinematic experience.
3. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
Bizarrely coming at the same time as another entry on this list, The Illusionist, Christopher Nolan’s thriller also focuses on 19th century magicians and features a twist ending. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale star as rival magicians, Angier and Borden, who are constantly trying to one-up each other’s tricks as well as sabotaging each other’s shows.
When Borden comes out with an incredible teleportation trick, Angier becomes obsessed with finding out how he does it. Originally trying out using a double to create the illusion, Angier dislikes sharing the applause so he visits the scientist Nikola Tesla who he asks to invent an appropriate machine for the job.
An intriguing mix of realistic historical content and fantastical elements, Nolan’s period piece may be set in the past, but is just as cerebrally intricate as his more ambitious films. It also provides a fascinating insight into the art behind creating the illusions. Also starring Michael Caine, David Bowie and Scarlett Johansson in great performances, The Prestige is a polished and mysterious thriller with twists to keep the viewer guessing.
2. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Miyazaki’s second film on this list is also his masterpiece, ranking among the greatest animated films ever made. The film follows Chihiro, a young girl who is moving with her parents to a new city. When the family is exploring a nearby abandoned fairgrounds, Chihiro’s parents go off to eat and Chihiro meets a young boy Haku who shows her a mysterious bathhouse where he works.
When she returns to her parents, she discovers that they have transformed into pigs from eating so much, so she flees in terror to the bathhouse and gets a job. She discovers, however, that it is a bathhouse for spirits run by the cruel witch Yubaba. Chihiro must grow up and try to get Yubaba to turn her parents back into people, all the while coping with the fantastic magical world.
Probably the most well known anime film in the West, Spirited Away captured audiences with its wildly inventive environment and atmosphere. Like Chihiro, the viewer is thrown into an overwhelming magical universe, filled with strange creatures and customs, resulting in an intoxicating and sometimes terrifying experience. This remarkable coming of age story tells the magical lore of Japan while relating it in a way we can all understand.
1. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
One of the most famous and iconic Hollywood films of all time, this adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s legendary is still as delightfully fantastical as when it came out. Judy Garland stars as Dorothy Gale, a farm girl in Kansas who gets swept up in a tornado and finds herself in the colorful and enchanting world of Oz with her little dog Toto.
When she accidentally kills one of the wicked witches that terrorize the land, she is put on a journey to find the all powerful Wizard of Oz to send her home. Along the way she is joined by a brainless scarecrow, a heartless tinman and a cowardly lion, all the while being chased by the Wicked Witch of the West and her army of flying monkeys.
Featuring dazzling sets in Technicolor and a timeless score, including the iconic “Over the Rainbow”, is a landmark fantasy film in every way. The revolutionary effects of the various witches’ magic were startling and hugely influential.
Besides from the witches who are actually magic, the wizard himself is an example of the real life illusionists of the time, who despite not having any actual powers, convinced everyone of his might. This beloved classic of American cinema is a fantastic mix of cheers, thrills and fun.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.